'The Lone Wolverine' tells the story of a real Michigan wolverine
Yet in 2004, a set of unfamiliar tracks near Ubly put two hunting brothers on the trail of a true wolverine—the first verified wolverine in the state in 200 years. And the story of that animal, and the science teacher/outdoorsman (Jeff Ford) who meticulously tracked and studied her until her death in 2010, is the subject of a University of Michigan Press book, “The Lone Wolverine: Tracking Michigan’s Most Elusive Animal.”
Elizabeth Philips Shaw (who wrote the book with Ford) had covered the health, environment and outdoor recreation beat for The Flint Journal for years when news of the wolverine’s death reached her. She hadn’t written about the wolverine before, but at that time, she decided to pursue the story for herself.
“It was going to be short and sweet, just a couple quick phone interviews with Jeff and the hikers who’d found the body,” said Shaw in an email interview. “Instead, I ended up on the phone with him for well over an hour. I was just completely disarmed and swept up by the obvious grief he felt for this animal. It was a love story, plain and simple.”
Having decided that the story she had on her hands was, in fact, a book, Shaw spent about 15 months working on “The Lone Wolverine"—with 5-6 months of that time spent writing.
“During that entire time, I don’t think I ever saw the surface of my dining room table,” said Shaw. “It was totally covered end-to-end with notebooks, stacks of printed-out emails and research papers, maps, photographs, computer disks. The main thing that kept me on track was Jeff had kept on his school and personal computers literally every email correspondence he’d ever had with anyone about the wolverine—six years’ worth of hundreds and hundreds of emails—and he gave me full access to all of it. That was an incredible resource for fact-checking and in laying out accurate timelines for what-happened-when. I couldn’t have asked for a better road map.”
The book begins with an account of hunters finding the wolverine’s corpse, and Ford’s emotional reaction to the news of her death. Readers then learn about the mark that a childhood tragedy left on Ford’s life, and how and why he came to feel such an intense connection to the wolverine while it roamed the wild in Michigan’s thumb.
Of course, telling such a personal story demands trust between subject and author—something that was never a problem with Ford and Shaw.
“Jeff is an incredibly open, honest guy who would probably share anything in his heart, head or back pocket with just about anyone who asked,” Shaw said. “And I think because of that, he was able to see my own sincerity was genuine. Jeff is also one of those natural-born storytellers, so it didn’t take a lot of work on my part to get him rolling on whatever I needed to ask him about. He’d send me these long, journal-like ‘ramblings’ on various topics that really helped me flesh out these experiences from his internal point of view.”
And while you might assume that there were personal things that Ford wasn’t comfortable sharing, this wasn’t an issue, according to Shaw.
“If it were left up to Jeff, there would’ve been absolutely nothing too sacred to put down on paper,” Shaw said. “Even if it was something that might make him look foolish or wrong, he’d just say, ‘Hey, that’s what happened, that’s what you should write.’ He was utterly fearless that way, and I really came to admire him for it. Not very many of us would be willing to be that honest.
“That said, there were most definitely things I had to make judgment calls about. One really central theme of this story was the friction Jeff caused in the scientific community by unintentionally stepping on some toes over the (wolverine’s) genetic origins issue. There are protocols and rules of etiquette in the academic and scientific communities that we lay persons don’t necessarily understand or even comprehend. It’s one of the main road blocks to success for these kinds of ‘citizen scientist’ partnerships. I wanted to address what happened, but I also had to be very circumspect in how I related those events.”
“The Lone Wolverine”’s story unfolds in a way similar to a mystery, as Ford tries different approaches to getting a photo of the wolverine, over the course of many months, before finally catching the animal on film.
“This was definitely an obsession, no doubt about it,” said Shaw. “But you have to realize, we’re talking about avid outsdoorsmen—guys who like nothing better than tramping around in the woods hunting for things.”
Along the way, Shaw tells a larger story that involves Michigan’s history; the state’s long tradition of cougar sightings (among other animals - I’m looking at you, Dexter bear) that largely go unverified; how animal sightings are reported and investigated; how animals are tracked in the wild; and the nature of Michigan’s hunting/outdoorsmen community.
How did a journalist gain access to this world?
“Jeff helped open those doors for me, since he knew all these people personally and could vouch for me,” said Shaw. “But I’m also an avid outdoorsman myself, and as the Journal’s outdoors writer, I’d already gone through my various ‘trials by fire’ to be accepted and trusted by that community. I think if I hadn’t had that background, it would’ve been a lot harder, maybe even impossible, to write this book.” And while not all questions about the wolverine get answered in the book, Shaw believes that that’s as it should be.
“Personally, I am a little glad that there will always be mystery surrounding this animal,” she said. “Our entire natural world is filled with mysteries that give us a sense of wonder. I wouldn’t ever want to lose that.”